BUSINESS
Money Makeover

Graphic designer, 29, learns to set reasonable financial goals

Graphic designer Jonathan Ng's upcoming marriage had him pondering long-term goals, including buying a house

Graphic designer Jonathan Ng didn't worry much about his spending habits or his trouble finding a full-time job that came with employer-sponsored health insurance.

Then the 29-year-old New York transplant got engaged and took an online quiz to determine at what age he would have saved enough money to retire comfortably. "WOOHOO!" the quiz results said, "You could be a millionaire by age 87."

For Ng, who has worked up to 70 hours a week at as many as three part-time jobs, the quiz result "was a shock." His upcoming marriage also had him pondering other long-term goals, including buying a house, raising children and saving for those future kids' college educations.

"I am saving for retirement," Ng said, "but I'm not really saving for all of these other things. It's a little overwhelming."

To fee-only financial planner Jennifer Hartman, Ng's story shows how quickly one can swing from worrying too little about finances to worrying too much.

Hartman, principal at Greenleaf Financial Group, said the latter could lead to discouragement when unrealistic goals aren't met.

"Start by taking a deep breath," Hartman said. "At this point in his life, Ng can't save for everything at once. He should start by setting limited and reasonable goals."

Ng isn't alone in worrying, but studies suggest that he may be in better financial shape than other members of the 18- to 35-year-old millennial generation:

Moody's Analytics recently estimated that the savings rate for millennials had fallen from 5.2% in 2009 to minus 2%. In other words, not only are millennials not saving, they're spending more than they earn.

•The millennial generation is the first in the modern era to be burdened with more student loan debt, higher unemployment and lower levels of wealth than their two immediate predecessor generations, a Pew Research Center study found.

•A recent survey conducted by the Harris Poll found that two-thirds of millennials said they are saving only half of what they think they should for retirement. The same poll, commissioned by the Nationwide Retirement Institute, showed that relatively few had sought out the services of a financial planner.

"They are seeking advice from the Internet, from family and friends," said Mike Spangler, president of Nationwide Funds, which like the retirement institute is affiliated with Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. "They need to take a more holistic approach."

Until recently, Ng had little time for such things, having left the comfort zone of his native Queens and lots of professional contacts in New York to seek his fortune in Los Angeles.

In doing so, Ng moved from the state with the second-highest population of graphic designers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and relocated to the only state where there were even more designers to compete against.

It was the price he paid for love, having grown weary of mostly seeing Catheryne Huttayananont, now his fiancee, on FaceTime smartphone calls.

Before heading for Los Angeles in 2011, Ng graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design in New York City and worked as a designer for a number of Wall Street firms and retirement plans.

"Everyone warned me not to come" to Los Angeles, Ng said. "But I was confident I could find a full-time job. That hasn't panned out. Every place I have been wants freelancers, not full-time designers."

Ng's first job in Los Angeles was with the branding firm Distinc, where he met Stephanie Chan, a co-worker who created a website called Outer Worth to encourage millennials to consider their financial futures. The site features the quiz that gave Ng retirement angst.

When design work at Distinc slowed, Ng added the Broad Stage and then Santa Monica College to his graphic design portfolio.

Ng said the search for work "has been my biggest challenge. That and getting the contacts I need in this industry since I'm not from L.A. It's been harder."

Saving more was also a challenge as Ng and Huttayananont celebrated their new proximity.

"Just me being here and wanting to do things with her," Ng said. "Saving was not a priority."

Ng has made some good decisions, Hartman said. For example, he took some savings and paid off $8,000 in no-interest credit card debt, rather than just rolling it over to another card with a no-interest grace period.

"I will find ways to not pay it off if I kept doing that," Ng said. "I need to go back to the way I was when I first started working, which was spending what I have, cash only, and not overreaching my income."

Unlike many others of his generation, Ng graduated from college without student loans to pay off. He managed to win a lot of financial grants, and his parents helped out with the rest.

Another point in his favor: Ng's savings, about $45,000 in retirement accounts and stocks, is good for someone his age, Hartman said.

"He has two stocks in a taxable account that he has lost money on," Hartman said. "He has wisely decided that his stock-picking days are over and thus he has invested his IRA in a low-cost diversified portfolio that is automatically rebalanced."

Hartman said Ng should set aside 10% of his income for investments. The first 7% of that, she said, should go into the 403(b) retirement plan he has started at Santa Monica College, which is matched to that percentage of his income even though he is not yet a full-time employee there.

The other 3%, Hartman said, should go into Ng's Roth IRA. He should try to add 1% more, for a total of 11%, of his income in 2015, then go to 12% in 2016.

Ng and Huttayananont both lease cars, which Hartman told the couple was too costly for their circumstances. "Buy a reasonable car and drive it as long as you can," she said.

Huttayananont is a registered nurse at a rehabilitation center, and the couple should investigate the cost of getting Ng signed on with her health plan, Hartman said.

Hartman wants Ng to remain debt free on his credit cards. "He can continue to use them, but he should make sure he can pay them off at the end of every month," she said.

Money that once went to credit card payments should be used "for other goals, like establishing an emergency fund account," Hartman said. She wants Ng to eventually build an emergency fund equal to six months of expenses.

Hartman said Ng and his fiancee should carefully track their spending in January.

"Let's figure how much they need for the basic things," Hartman said. "Keep track of every penny. It's not the most fun activity in the world, but it really can be beneficial."

Hartman also wants the couple to open a separate savings account dedicated to their wedding costs.

"Rather than having just one account for everything, figure out how much you are going to need, and put the money there," Hartman said.

She also encouraged the couple to maintain small, separate accounts in their own names for personal purchases.

"They both should have a small account for fun money to pursue things you like to do without having to hear about it from your spouse," Hartman said, while also stressing that communication about finances is important.

Future savings from combining expenses, such as for phone plans or cable television bills, should be invested, not spent, Hartman said.

Once married, the couple should start contributing to their future children's college costs. "Start low, with about $25 a month," Hartman said.

The financial planner also wants Ng and his fiancee to make wills and set up power-of-attorney documents for each other in the event of a debilitating injury or illness, allowing them to make medical decisions on each other's behalf.

The career development of the millennial generation is expected to be characterized by relatively short stints at various employers. By some accounts, millennials spend no more than 18 months at a job, on average, before moving to another, which could deprive them of retirement benefits if they leave before being fully vested.

"Always carefully consider the employee benefits of any new job, which can sometimes be more important than the salary offered," Hartman said.

Ng needs only to keep the good habits he has, and add a few more, Hartman said, to reach his retirement goals.

"He's got good goals and plans," Hartman said. "It will just take time to bring them to fruition."

ron.white@latimes.com

Twitter: @RonWLATimes

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